For the past three months, I’ve been working solidly on my new book Servants’ Stories: Life Below Stairs in Their Own Words 1800-1950. As a result, my ‘Visitor’s Guide to Victorian England’ blog has been shockingly neglected so it’s time to make amends!
While writing and researching the book, I’ve been truly immersed in the world of domestic servants. One of the areas I looked at was how maids found their jobs. There was, of course, word of mouth and the ‘Situations Vacant’ columns in newspapers, but there were also servants’ registries or registry offices: the equivalent of today’s employment agency.
Servants’ registries were usually run by ex-servants who had set up a business with their life savings, often in conjunction with another enterprise such as a newsagent or grocer. There was a huge expansion of these offices during the Victorian period to cater for the rise in demand for servants by the middle classes, and most provincial towns had at least one while in large cities there were numerous offices. The servants’ registries specialised in matching up domestic servants with mistresses who had vacancies.
Ladies wanting servants would contact a servant’s registry with their requirements, such as the type of servant and salary provided. The office would match up servants with employers, and the larger ones had private booths in which prospective maids could be interviewed. In most cases, both mistress and servant would pay a fee for the service. Charities such as the Girls’ Friendly Society, the Metropolitan Association for Befriending Young Servants (M.A.B.Y.S.) and the Young Women’s Christian Association (Y.W.C.A.) also ran registries.
Recently, I came across an excellent post on Emmy Eustace’s blog about Mrs Hunt’s Servants’ Registry Office. Mrs Hunts’ was a famous registry office with an impeccable reputation. Only the very best servants with first-class ‘characters’ were considered for positions advertised in her agency and she offered a ‘no engagement, no fee’ policy. The ‘character’ was the written reference provided by the servant’s previous employer and he or she could not hope to find a better place with higher wages or improved living conditions without one.
|From ‘Servant London’ in Living London (1900)|
Mrs Hunt’s “suited” over 50,000 customers a year, according to a journalist for Living London. When he visited the office in Duke Street in 1900, he discovered that there was “a black list which is carefully posted up and which records the history of the black sheep, male and female. Even as there is a trade in begging letters, so there is one in the manufacturing of servants’ characters, and such a calling will prosper, in spite of all risks of detection and punishment, so long as a written character is deemed sufficient.”
The problem with ‘characters’ was that masters and mistresses were not legally obliged to provide them, hence the trade in fraudulent written references. If a ‘character’ was not forthcoming to show to a future employer, it would automatically be assumed that the servant was an unsatisfactory employee. By the same token, a mistress might write an untruthfully positive reference just to be rid of a troublesome maid, passing the problem on to the next employer.
|From ‘Servant London’ in Living London (1900)|
While Mrs Hunt’s catered for high-class clientele, at the other end of the scale were the fraudulent registry offices which placed tempting advertisements in the provincial newspapers. The Pall Mall Gazette (15 January 1894) reported:
“When servants answer them they are summoned to London by the registry-keeper who has advertised. On arrival in London, the deluded servants are unable to get any information about the situation advertised. The situations, in fact, do not exist, the servants having been deluded into coming up in order that they should lodge at the registry office, at a charge leaving a fine margin of profit to the keeper. Nor do they get a room to themselves at these so-called servants’ homes. Seven, eight and nine are packed into one room, and the poor victims can do nothing but remonstrate, fearing that if they leave their chances of obtaining the desired situation will be made so much the more remote…Servants lodging at these wretched homes are sent to employers where they cannot stop. For instance, a good servant is sent to a bad place, where he or she will not remain, and a bad servant is sent to a good place, where the master or mistress will not put up with incompetency. Thus the poor servants are constantly kept returning to the registry lodgings, impoverishing themselves while enabling these land-sharks to live in luxury.”
|‘Morning Wear’ from Cassell’s Household Guide, 1911|
The journalist from Living London alluded to the risk to servants of answering “specious advertisements. There are “situations” with “good wages for suitable young women” which are not “places” within the accepted meaning of the word, and if the lights in Servant London are bright the shadows are black indeed.”
From 1907, registry offices within the London County Council area were licensed and these annual licenses were withdrawn if there were complaints. However, local authorities elsewhere in Britain did not take advantage of powers to do the same so a registry office in London with a revoked license could legally set up again outside the capital. It seems that the best way for servants to avoid fraudulent registry offices and misleading advertisements was to find situations via personal recommendation only.
|‘Maid of All Work’ from Living London, 1900|
The photo of the registry office in Duke St is amazing. There are so many people there, looking for work. I assumed that since servants didn't voluntarily give up their job (except perhaps to get married or to retire), there wouldn't be many vacancies on offer.Secondly where were all the men? Did men who wanted to be footmen, valets etc need a registery?
Thanks very much for your comment – glad you liked the post and photos. By the 1890s, there were far more work opportunities for women besides going into domestic service so there were fewer servants. Maids frequently changed jobs to 'better themselves', get higher wages and improved prospects which explains the large number of women in Mrs Hunt's office. And yes, male servants' jobs were also advertised in servants' registries. In fact, Emmy Eustace's blog post is all about male servants at Mrs Hunt's so it's worth a look: http://a-backward-look.blogspot.co.uk/2014/10/edwardian-servants-agency.html
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Only just found this while searching for info about Servant registries. I am researching all the servants from Calke Abbey and wanted to understand how the servant registries worked. I have lots and lots of examples of written characters and application letters from the Archives, including letters of recommendation from the local servant registry in Derby. This blog has been excellent in giving me the background I needed.
Glad it was of use, Karen. Sounds like a very interesting project!
My great gransmother, Emma Agnes Ashely (Rowe) Fergie (1832-1895), established a Registry Office for servants in Liverpool in 1871. This business continued in the twentieth century under the auspices of two unmarried daughters, Emma and (mainly) Jessie Mary. The enterprise was maintained for some seventy years. The main thrust of the business was the supply of hotel staff to the resorts in north Wales, the Wirral, Blackpool and the Isle of Man though there was a constant need to provide domestics for Liverpool households. Queues of young woman would form almost daily outside the house to secure a placement through the Fergies. The maid would admit them one at a time whatever the weather. Visits were made to hotels, etc., to ensure that the servants placed were being well looked after in their positions. The Fergie estabishment frequently advertised openings in the local press. The business was conducted from private addresses and the last move by Emma Ashley Fergie, in 1886, found its continuance at No. 36 West Derby Street. Emma junior and Jessie Mary relocated to No. 52 West Derby Street early in the twentieth century. This provided the family with a source of income which put a good deal of power into the hands of the distaff side.
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This is so interesting – thank you very much for posting it. It just goes to show how important servants’ registries were in helping servants to find work, and why registries with good reputations, like those of your ancestor, were so popular.
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